Originally published on www.spiritualliving360.com
Ascension Day is a Christian holy day commemorating the ascension of Jesus Christ into Heaven. It is a Thursday, 40 days after Easter, though some U.S. churches observe it on the following Sunday. In Western Churches using the Gregorian Calendar, the date varies from late April to early June, almost always in May. In Churches using the Julian Calendar it is usually about two weeks later.
Biblical and Early History
The New Testament records Christ visiting the disciples on several occasions after his Resurrection (Easter Sunday). Several weeks later he journeyed with them to the Mount of Olives in Bethany, a short distance outside Jerusalem. There he ascended into Heaven in their presence. Then two angels came to the disciples, proclaiming what had happened. While mentioned in the Gospels (Mark 16:19 and Luke 24:51) the most complete rendition is in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
There is no firm documentary evidence of the observance of Ascension Day prior to the early 5th century, though St. Augustine’s writings imply it was celebrated long before his time, some say as early as 68 A.D.
A religious holiday, many in today’s secular society know very little about it. Though observed in the Anglican (American Episcopalian) Church, and Orthodox Churches, it is better known as a Roman Catholic holy day.
Significance in the Church Calendar
In the Catholic Church, attending mass is expected on this holy day of obligation. It was known at one time as Holy Thursday. This term now usually refers to Maundy Thursday. The Eve of Good Friday is when Christ had his symbolic Last Supper of bread and wine with his disciples.
The Sunday before Ascension Day was known as Rogation Sunday, but since the Second Vatican Council of 1970 is simply the Fifth Sunday after Easter. Three (traditionally fasting) Rogation Days follow, just prior to Ascension Day.
On this day, the Pascal, or Easter Candle, is extinguished, officially ending the Easter season. There are seven devotional days, followed by two days of further preparation for Pentecost by the Priests, completing a nine-day novena. The next day, Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, commemorates the Holy Spirit descending upon the disciples with “tongues of fire,” as related in the Book of Acts of the Apostles. This marks the actual beginning of the Christian Church.
Observances and Superstitions
There are many symbols used in some of the special ceremonies and services on Ascension Day. A lion defeating a dragon symbolizes Christ defeating the devil. In some places, chasing a “devil” through the streets is following by burning it in effigy or dunking it in a pond. Other symbols include the rising Christ, a broken chain, and birds flying homeward.
In some Churches there is the symbolic raising of a statue of Jesus above the altar and through a special door in the roof. Many churches have a special blessing of the first fruits, often grapes or beans.
Outdoor processions with banners and torches are part of the celebrations in many places. In England, this procession is sometimes led with the banner of a Lion, while a banner with a dragon brings up the rear, symbolizing Christ’s victory over the devil.
In some parts of Italy, such as Tuscany, families go on a picnic in the country, and children collect crickets that are brought home in a small cricket cage. It is good luck if the cricket is singing in its cage when brought back home. In some places, this is known as “La Festa del Grillo,” or the Feast of the Cricket. This is now often held on the Sunday after Ascension Day.
Venice has a long history of celebrating Ascension Day. The Doge of Venice left the city on this feast day in 1000 A.D. to assist the Dalmatians against the threat of the Slavs, improving Venetian security.
In 1177, the Doge made peace with the Papal States. Honoring his service, Pope Alexander III presented a special blessed ring to him, assuring Venetian sovereignty over the seas. This evolved into a special ceremony, the marriage of the sea. A flotilla of ornately decorated boats sail into the Lagoon to the church of San Nicolò de Lido, where a ring is ceremoniously thrown by the Mayor of Venice into the water, uniting the city with the sea. Francesco Guardi immortalized this ceremony in his paintings of the late 18th century.
There are many folk superstitions surrounding this day. In Wales, it is bad luck to work on Ascension Day. In Devon, it is thought that clouds will appear in the shape of a lamb. Some believe that eating lamb on Ascension Day will lead to a sty in the eye and retinal detachment.
Rainwater gathered on Ascension Day is thought to help eye diseases or inflammation. Others believe that rain on this day predicts a poor harvest and illness among livestock, particularly cattle, while a sunny day predicts a long, hot summer.
Ascension Day completes the cycle of the life of Christ. These are just some of the special celebrations and superstitions that surround this important day of the Christian calendar that ends the Easter season.
Cowie, L. W., and Gummer, John Selwyn. The Christian Calendar. Springfield, Massacusetts: G. & C. Merriman Company, Publishers, 1974.